"The Shekhinah Rose Where a People Died" Indian Poet Dom Moraes on Israel and Jewish History

By Goldman, Shalom | Midstream, November-December 2007 | Go to article overview
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"The Shekhinah Rose Where a People Died" Indian Poet Dom Moraes on Israel and Jewish History


Goldman, Shalom, Midstream


The 1961 trial of Adolph Eichmann in Jerusalem attracted hundreds of journalists from around the world. Among the journalists attending the trial was twenty-three year old Indian poet Dom Moraes. I identify him first as a poet because that is how he wished to be known and that is how he first achieved recognition in the public eye. For in 1957, at the age of nineteen, Moraes, still a student at Oxford University, won what was then the most prestigious English literary award, the Hawthornden Prize. Among the admirers of his poetry were W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender. Moraes was the first Indian, in fact, the first non-Englishman, to win the prize. This was a remarkable achievement for a young poet.

After a very eventful, bohemian three years at Oxford Dom Moraes realized that the craft of poetry would not provide a living. He used his literary connections to secure a series of journalistic assignments for British newspapers. Among them were assignments in India and elsewhere in South Asia. The Eichmann trial was his first significant assignment outside the realm of Indian affairs. The trial, and his visit to Jerusalem, would have a profound influence on his life and work. And Moraes, through his literary and journalistic work would influence the presentation of Israeli literature in both India and the West.

During Moraes's prolonged sojourn in Israel (he stayed for over a year) he formed lasting friendships with Israeli writers, poets, and journalists. He became a Zionist of sorts, though always a critical one. What is more, he became a translator of Hebrew poetry, though he never actually mastered the Hebrew language. He would work with Israeli poets, listen to the cadence of their poems, and work with them to achieve an elegant English translation. It is these Israeli Zionists and Hebrew literary associations that I wish to describe in this essay. I will examine these specific interests against the background of Dom Moraes's restless, intellectually curious, and assertively bohemian life--a life that began and ended in India, with a long sojourn in England in between.

Moraes's confrontation with the vivid testimonies at the Eichmann trial was one of his first encounters with man's inhumanity to man. As Indian critic Ranjit Hoskote commented in the Hindu (6/13/04): "Dom's sympathies lay with the impoverished, the oppressed, and the disempowered." I would contend that these sympathies, first developed in his adolescence, were further developed and acutely refined during his year in Jerusalem while reporting on the trial.

Dom Moraes's death, in June of 2004, generated a considerable number of obituaries and eulogies in the Indian Press. Many journalists remarked on his unexpected return to India in the late 1970s. For Moraes had exiled himself to England in the 1960's and was thought of as a permanent expatriate. His poetry and prose were quite well-known in India and he visited India occasionally, but no one expected him to return there permanently. International journalism was where he had made his reputation and his living, and London was where he had made his home. Moraes had turned from poetry to journalism in the 1960s and by the end of the 1970s it seemed that the collection of poems that he had published in 1965 was to be the last of his poetic works.

But in 1979 he surprised his readers when he returned to Bombay and there entered into a new creative engagement with India and a renewed engagement with poetry. In Bombay through the 1980s and 90s, Moraes resumed writing both books and poems and would continue to do so until his death at the age of sixty-six. Towards the end of his life he produced a series of books about India, many written with his partner Saraya Srivatsa. These late works convey a strong sense of social concern, and a persistent demand for equality and justice in India and throughout the world.

Childhood:

Born in Bombay to a Catholic family of Goanese descent, Dom Moraes grew up as an only child in a home saturated with a mixture of Indian and Western culture.

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